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PFAS: The heat pump industry’s toxic pollution secret

The chemical refrigerants used in the majority of heat pumps manufactured today have received a lot of negative attention over the years.

Until recently, this has been largely focused around their high global warming potential (GWP). But there’s a whole other toxic pollution trap that we’re walking into with synthetic refrigerant heat pumps: PFAS!

At Clade, we only use natural refrigerants in our heat pumps to avoid poisoning the planet with these harmful environmental toxins. But not all heat pump manufacturers can say the same.

Here, we’ll explain all you need to know about PFAS and heat pumps – from why they’re a problem to what we can do about it. But first…

What are PFAS?

PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

They’re a group of nearly 15,000 synthetic chemicals, which all have a special bond of carbon and fluoride atoms. This makes them extremely strong and resistant to heat, water, oil and dirt.

These properties make PFAS popular in all sorts of products – from food packaging to medical devices; toys to non-stick cookware and even water-repellent clothing.

But the qualities that make them so popular also make these chemicals highly problematic.

PFAS are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ as they’re virtually indestructible and can take centuries to break down.

As such, they can be found in many watercourses where they poison wildlife and, in some areas, even endanger human life. Which brings us onto…

Why are PFAS a problem?

PFAS have finally started to attract a lot of negative attention. Why?

Well, these ‘forever chemicals’ don’t fully degrade. Instead, they pollute groundwater and accumulate in living organisms.

To put the problem into context, Yahoo! News reports that almost half the tap water in the US contains PFAS, and these chemicals can be found in the blood of nearly every person in the country!

Meanwhile, a global study found that 31% of groundwater samples that weren’t near any clear sources of contamination had harmful PFAS levels. And in the UK, the toxic chemicals are also commonly found in fruits, vegetables and spices (head over to the Independent to learn more).

As well as poisoning wildlife, PFAS have been linked to severe health issues in humans. This includes damage to the liver and immune system and an increased risk of some cancers.

There’s also a link between PFAS and low birth weight, birth defects and developmental delays. And exposure to these toxins has even been linked to a delay in the onset of puberty in girls, leading to higher risks of breast cancer, renal disease and thyroid disease.

This is just the tip of the iceberg!

PFAS pollute groundwater

What have PFAS got to do with heat pumps?

So, what have PFAS got to do with heat pumps?

Well, despite the fact that alternatives are available, most heat pumps manufactured today still contain synthetic refrigerants, like HFOs (hydrofluoro-olefins).

As well as having massive GWP, these refrigerants contain harmful PFAS.

This is especially problematic given that heat pumps are billed as being a green heating technology.

As such, they’re often adopted by businesses that are looking to reach their sustainability goals. These businesses are often unaware that their new heating system is releasing harmful toxins into the environment!

The EU’s recent regulations on refrigerants leave HFOs largely unregulated, which will simply exacerbate the problem. But this might not be the case for long…

New PFAS regulations and bans

Several countries are now starting to take PFAS much more seriously.

French lawmakers recently voted to ban the use of these ‘forever chemicals. Meanwhile, PFAS are the focus of major lawsuits globally. And they could be banned by the EU as early as 2026.

New regulations restricting the use of PFAS are certainly good news for the planet. But it also poses a risk for businesses that choose to invest in synthetic refrigerant heat pumps.

After all, a heat pump should usually last for around 15 to 20 years. But with restrictions surrounding the use of PFAS and F-gases likely to increase in severity, there’s a real chance that a synthetic refrigerant heat pump could become a stranded asset in the near future.

What’s the solution?

As you can see, there are too many of these harmful ‘forever chemicals’ on the planet already.

The last thing we want to be doing is adding more of them into the environment. And luckily, there’s no need to!

Natural refrigerants like R290 (propane) and R744 (CO2) are a no-regret alternative to synthetic refrigerants containing PFAS.

Not only are they free of these environmental toxins, but they also have incredibly low GWP. As an example, propane has a GWP of just three – or even lower, depending on the time considered!

So, they won’t poison our planet or contribute towards climate change, making them a no-brainer when it comes to the environment.

And they’re a win for businesses too. Natural refrigerants are highly efficient, cheap and won’t be subject to regulations and bans – making them the best way to safeguard the longevity of a heat pump.

Natural refrigerant heat pump

Natural refrigerants are the no-regret choice

Hopefully, regulations restricting the use of harmful PFAS will put an end to these ‘forever chemicals’ sooner rather than later.

But we believe it’s all of our responsibility to say no to nasty environmental toxins. In particular, as a building owner or operator, it’s important to consider which refrigerants you allow you in your heat pumps.

By opting for a synthetic refrigerant heat pump, you’ll be contributing towards the poisoning of our planet. Plus, there’s the risk that your heat pump could become a stranded asset, as PFAS bans become more widespread.

On the other hand, natural refrigerants are low GWP, non-toxic, highly efficient and cheap – a no-regret option.

At Clade, we only work with natural refrigerants as we care about the impact we have on the planet and the people on it. In fact, we’re even a certified B Corp, demonstrating our commitment to purpose, not just profit.

To learn more about how we can help your business to switch to a truly green heating system, just get in touch.